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Even as the BRICS mem­ber states come to terms with a ris­ing China, a fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tion lies at the very heart of BRICS as a po­lit­i­cal idea. China and Rus­sia have lit­tle in­cen­tive to seek a change in the global po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tional fab­ric. They have a stake in pre­serv­ing the sta­tus quo, while the re­main­ing three— In­dia, Brazil, and South Africa— are strug­gling to en­ter the hal­lowed con­fines of great power pol­i­tics, and as such seek a re­dis­tri­bu­tion. This strug­gle is re­flected in the de­bate over re­struc­tur­ing the per­ma­nent mem­ber­ship of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

BRICS has called for ‘‘ com­pre­hen­sive re­form’’ of the United Na­tions to make the body “more ef­fec­tive, ef­fi­cient, and rep­re­sen­ta­tive”. How­ever, China re­mains one of the big­gest ob­sta­cles to chang­ing the per­ma­nent mem­ber­ship of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. The veto- wield­ing pow­ers of China and Rus­sia have an im­pact on global poli­cies that Brazil, In­dia and South Africa can only aspire to. Not sur­pris­ingly, it’s US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama— not Hu Jin­tao or Vladimir Putin— who promised In­dia that he would help in this goal dur­ing his visit to New Delhi in Novem­ber 2010.

While BRICS wants greater re­spon­si­bil­ity on eco­nomic is­sues, in po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity af­fairs it re­mains re­luc­tant to share any bur­dens. It has not been able to fash­ion a co­or­di­nated re­sponse to var­i­ous global chal­lenges as is re­flected in its di­ver­gent po­si­tions at the UN. In an­other ex­am­ple, de­spite be­ing dis­sat­is­fied with the global fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tional fab­ric, the mem­bers of BRICS failed to col­lec­tively chal­lenge the Western dom­i­nance of the IMF and World Bank dur­ing the 2012 lead­er­ship changes of th­ese in­sti­tu­tions. The can­di­dacy of France’s Chris­tine La­garde went un­chal­lenged, and BRICS failed to pro­pose a com­mon can­di­date for the pres­i­dency of the World Bank. Un­less BRICS can ar­tic­u­late a com­mon vi­sion on global is­sues, it will re­main un­able to set the global agenda and dis­course.

It is also im­por­tant to recog­nise that the BRICS’ con­cep­tion of global or­der fun­da­men­tally di­verges from the lib­eral vi­sion of Western states. As Sciences Po pro­fes­sor Zaki Laidi ar­gues, BRICS “is con­cerned with main­tain­ing its in­de­pen­dence of judg­ment and national ac­tion in a world that is in­creas­ingly eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially in­ter- de­pen­dent”. As a re­sult, on crit­i­cal global is­sues, BRICS has been sat­is­fied prof­fer­ing ba­nal­i­ties as op­posed to propos­ing se­ri­ous pol­icy choices.

Be­yond the ques­tion of global lead­er­ship, it is not read­ily ev­i­dent if BRICS mem­bers are even con­sid­ered lead­ers in their own neigh­bour­hoods. All, in­clud­ing China, con­tinue to face sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges within their own re­gions. China’s ham- handed as­sertive­ness in its neigh­bour­hood is pro­duc­ing a back­lash, seen in a loose anti- Chi­nese coali­tion emerg­ing in East and South­east Asia. In­dia’s dom­i­nance of the South Asian land­scape makes it a nat­u­ral tar­get of re­sent­ment from its smaller neigh­bours. Brazil’s lead­er­ship in South Amer­ica is not ac­cepted by other states in the re­gion, as is re­flected in Ar­gentina’s re­jec­tion of the Brazil­ian can­di­dacy for per­ma­nent mem­ber­ship of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. Rus­sia’s neigh­bours still chafe at the mem­ory of Soviet be­hav­iour dur­ing the Cold War, while South Africa has been found want­ing in tack­ling chal­lenges in its own back­yard ( such as the Libyan cri­sis).

The grow­ing fas­ci­na­tion with BRICS is partly an off­shoot of the dis­cus­sion on the emerg­ing “post- Amer­i­can” world where many com­men­ta­tors ar­gue mul­tipo­lar­ity is likely to be the norm. Yet, while BRICS may have grow­ing economies and the idea may have mor­phed into a nascent po­lit­i­cal con­cept, it is not en­tirely clear if it trans­lates into power at the global level. Its con­tri­bu­tion to the global or­der re­mains ten­ta­tive at best and prob­lem­atic at worst. BRICS na­tions have so far not been able to cre­ate in­sti­tu­tions that would help them to con­sol­i­date and lever­age their clout on the global stage. Even if BRICS get its eco­nomic act to­gether, which seems un­likely, the group will not be able to turn that strength into a uni­fied po­lit­i­cal force. Fur­ther­more, the dom­i­nance of China makes most of the goals ar­tic­u­lated by the BRICS states wob­bly. The point of this coali­tion was al­ways to show that the bal­ance of power is shift­ing to emerg­ing coun­tries and away from the West’s his­tor­i­cal dom­i­nance, but a mul­ti­po­lar world isn’t the same as China just try­ing to tilt the bal­ance of power to­wards it­self.

The nar­ra­tive sur­round­ing the rise of BRICS is as ex­ag­ger­ated as that of the de­cline of the United States. The tec­tonic plates of global pol­i­tics are cer­tainly shift­ing, but their move­ments are yet not pre­dictable. As a re­sult, BRICS will re­main an ar­ti­fi­cial con­struct, merely an acro­nym coined by an in­vest­ment bank­ing an­a­lyst for quite some time to come.

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